City Needs a Moratorium on New Development

City Needs a Moratorium on New Development


Catellus. Alameda Landing. Del Monte. The old Naval Air Station — Alameda Point. What do all these projects have in common? Level of service is the only criteria the City of Alameda has ever used to evaluate the traffic impacts for these mega projects — or any other project the city has pushed through, for that matter. 

Level-of-service-based traffic studies for these development projects have all concluded that the traffic delays they produced would be grossly lower than the delays actually occurring on Alameda streets and morning peak traffic delays dropping at the West End by 2035. 

Yet now, with the Encinal Terminals project (589 new homes), the city has suddenly done an about-face:

“Level of service has historically proven to be an inadequate measure in Alameda because residents experience delays at certain intersections, yet the analysis indicates that the level of service at the intersection is adequate. The delay that is being experienced is the result of downstream congestion, not a result of the intersection design or the volume of cars moving through the intersection.”

With those words, the city admitted that the traffic studies for Encinal Terminals and all previous megaprojects are worthless. How strange is that? I’ve been raising this point for the past 20 years in a half-dozen or more letters to City Hall. So why did the city finally admit its error? Perhaps, now with traffic congestion much worse, others, too, are speaking up after reading these traffic studies. 

The easiest way to understand the quote above is to use an analogy: 

Downstream traffic congestion is sort of like a partial plug in your sewer lateral — the pipe that connects your indoor plumbing to the sewer main. 

In effect, the city is saying they have measured the flow through the house’s sewer lateral (the estuary crossings and approaches) and found it to be greatly reduced, due to a blockage (congested Oakland intersections and merges onto the Nimitz) where the lateral connects to the sewer main (the freeway). As a result, the water flows slowly down the drains to the lateral (traffic moves slowly out of Alameda).

You hire a plumber who says he can add a new bathroom to your home for your growing family without fixing the blockage at the end of the lateral. (City staff and their consultants say they can add new megaprojects to Alameda Island with no increases in delay at the West End.) Great, says City Council as they approve projects including Alameda Marina and Encinal Terminals for almost 4,000 new housing units! 

Next thing you know, you have sewer water pouring out onto your kitchen and bathroom floors (traffic backing up on multiple approaches to the estuary crossings) and high costs to fix the damage (taxpayers burdened by the excessive costs of creating a new traffic plan). 

For a very long time, I’ve been asking the city to evaluate the traffic blockages at the crossings. Not doing so has hidden the real delays and ignored the potential infrastructure costs to taxpayers when approving these developments. 

Estimating the traffic delays accurately can be done quite easily, using standard traffic engineering techniques. I have done it multiple times; the best example is the traffic evaluation I produced to support building the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel. This methodology is different from the individual intersection evaluations performed by City Hall. Those will not work for Alameda because our traffic issues stem primarily from the fact that we are an island, and our traffic access comes through increasingly congested Oakland streets. 

The people of Alameda are not anti-development. We simply want the facts, including honest projections of how a proposed development and the string of expected developments will affect the time it takes us to exit or enter the Island. 

These projections must be realistic and market-based. How much housing will be added as a result of this project? How many jobs, and are those numbers realistic for an island without any earthquake lifeline caliber connections to the mainland? We want a good traffic plan, and we want to be assured the dollars exist to build out the traffic plan via public funding and developer fees and that future developments pay their fair share. 

A formal and transparent risk analysis must be undertaken to review the costs to support all the developments, the projections of job and housing growth, the costs associated with environmental and seismic risks and the ways to finance the public infrastructure needed. This has been standard for major transportation capital programs like high-speed rail or BART extensions and is a requirement of funding; whoever provides the capital needs evidence and assurance that the projects will be successful. 

As it stands, by the time we know the facts about a proposed project and who pays for what, the developers are long gone.

We need a moratorium on building permits for these new development projects until we have a clear understanding of all potential costs and traffic impacts. If you agree, speak up on the Encinal Terminal and the Alameda Marina Projects, these will soon go to Council. 



Eugenie P. Thomson P.E. is a retired civil and traffic engineer and an Alameda resident since 1980.